article by UKNIWM Project Officer, Frances Casey
The anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July has made me think recently of that equally disastrous attack, intended as a diversion and strategic support to the main Somme offensive, which took place at Fromelles on 19th July 1916. In the news, following the discovery of a burial pit containing the bodies of approximately 400 Australian and British soldiers in 2006, the Attack at Fromelles was the first engagement on the western front for the newly arrived Australian Imperial Force, and for many it was also to be their last. The attack is characterised by a catalogue of errors and poor judgement, for the plan of attack assumed that an assault in force in broad daylight would take the enemy by surprise, without allowing for the possibility of the advance being held up. In the event, the Australian 8th and 14th Brigades were caught above ground as, horrifyingly, they encountered trenches flooded with rainwater on their advance. They were trapped, unable to retreat or to move in either direction due to quick encirclement by German machine gun posts. Elsewhere, poor communication caused a futile and doomed one-pronged advance by the Australian 58th Battalion who were unaware that the British had cancelled their side of the assault.
The nature of the attack, which completely failed in its objective to divert the Germans from the Somme front and capture the German-held salient at Fromelles, explains the gravity of the Australian losses at over 5,000 men. These losses, made over just one day and night, led to the establishment of the only cemetery in France dedicated solely to Australian soldiers of the First World War.
Unlike the usual format of Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, the V.C Corner Australian Cemetery near Fromelles does not have headstones. In the battlefield searches carried out by the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission in the 1920s, over 400 bodies were found at Fromelles, but none could be identified and as a result, they lie buried in unmarked plots. Each man killed in the attack at Fromelles is instead commemorated on an imposing memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, in the V.C Corner Australian Cemetery.
According to the charter of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, every individual casualty is entitled to be commemorated by name, either on a headstone or, if their body was not found or identified, on a memorial to the missing/ unidentified. The CWGC does not commemorate individuals in more than one place. So, it does seem likely that, with the planned identification of individuals from the Fromelles mass grave using DNA, the names will slowly be removed from the Memorial and transferred to headstones in the new cemetery, planned outside the town of Fromelles for 2010. Certainly, a precedent for this exists with the Menin Gate. What will be interesting to see, is whether the wish to identify individuals in the newly discovered mass grave will inevitably lead to a desire to identify the nameless interments in the V.C Corner Australian Cemetery.
Thinking about the unidentified and missing men of the attack, I wondered whether there might be memorials in the UK or Australia commemorating individuals killed at Fromelles in 1916. A search of the UKNIWM Channel4 names database brought up seven memorials which referred specifically to Fromelles. Six of these were to the battle of the same name, which had taken place just over a year previously on 9th May 1915. One memorial, a Roll of Honour in Peterborough District Hospital, commemorates Sgt Sidney Green, of the 59th Bn Australian Imperial Force, ‘Reported Killed in Action 19th July 1916 at Fromelles’. Sidney Green was 26 when he died, and in the 1920s the IWGC received a returned casualty form from his family. This told them that he was the son of Patience and the late James Green and the husband of Irene Elizabeth. Described as ‘Native of Staines, Middlesex’ he was recorded as living at 7 Manningham Street, West Parkville, Victoria, Australia. Peterborough is not mentioned, although the Roll of Honour also has an address for him at Fletton Avenue, Peterborough.
I did not find Sidney Green named on Staines War Memorial, and it may be that when this memorial was erected, there was no longer anyone living in the town who knew him. What was more surprising was that he is not on the Parkville War Memorial on Royal Parade in Melbourne. This memorial, a statue of an Australian First World War soldier, has 30 names on it and stands just across the park from where Sidney Green lived. There are numerous potential explanations for why his name is missing: by the time the Parkville memorial was commissioned and then unveiled in 1929, Irene Green may have moved away, or since her husband was technically missing she may not have wished to submit his name; there may have been some accidental, social or personal motivation. That he is on the Peterborough memorial shows that his life was not a straightforward case of born and died and represented in these areas: that his life touched that of others in the different places that he lived and was known. An unexpected discovery was a photograph of Sgt Sidney Frank William Harold Green, 59th Bn, Australian Imperial Force in the First World War Bond of Sacrifice, a published photographic biographical roll of honour. This photo and entry would have been another means of commemorating the life of Sidney Green.
In looking into the memorials to one individual lost in the horror of Fromelles in 1916, I realised that although these men have been missing for over 90 years, there are traces of their complex life paths in the memorials, traces that have been made manifest by those who knew them. I was also left with the question of whether, when a name is missing from a memorial, is this not just as vocal an indication of the movements, hopes or errors of those they left behind?